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“Blizzard of the century” kills dozens but conditions expected to improve

Temperatures were expected to moderate across the Northeast and Midwest Tuesday after days of frigid weather from “the blizzard of the century” left at least 55 dead nationwide and caused Christmas travel chaos.

Blizzard conditions persisted in parts of the Northeast — the stubborn remnants of a sprawl of extreme weather that gripped the country over several days, causing widespread power outages, travel delays and deaths in nine states, according to official figures.

In New York state, authorities described ferocious conditions, particularly in Buffalo, with hours-long whiteouts, bodies being discovered in vehicles and under snow banks, and emergency personnel going “car to car” searching for survivors.

The perfect storm of fierce snow squalls, howling wind and sub-zero temperatures forced the cancelation of more than 15,000 U.S. flights in recent days, including nearly 4,000 on Monday, according to tracking site Flightaware.com, with Southwest Airlines particularly hard-hit.

Buffalo — a city in Erie County in northwestern New York that’s no stranger to foul winter weather — is the epicenter of the crisis, buried under staggering amounts of snow. The death toll in the county was at least 27 Tuesday morning.

Speaking at a news conference Monday, Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz said the county’s death toll would probably surpass the one from Buffalo’s infamous blizzard of 1977, when nearly 30 people died.

With most of Buffalo still “impassable,” he joined New York Gov. Kathy Hochul in warning residents to bunker down and stay in place.

“Certainly, it is the blizzard of the century,” Hochul told reporters Monday, adding it was “way too early to say this is at its completion.”

Hochul said some western New York towns got walloped with “30 to 40 inches of snow overnight” into Monday, and the National Weather Service said up to 9 more inches could fall in some areas through Tuesday.

Later Monday, Hochul spoke with President Biden, who offered “the full force of the federal government” to support New York state and said he and First Lady Jill Biden were praying for those who lost loved ones in the storm, according to a White House statement.

The president also approved an emergency declaration for New York, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist with recovery efforts.

“Our focus has been on life safety, working in teams, plowing to get to motorists who are stranded in vehicles, plowing and opening up streets to get to people with emergency medical situations,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown told CBS News in an interview Monday afternoon. “And then also working with our power company, National Grid, to get them to needed locations to restore power.”

“This is probably one of the harshest winter storms this city has seen in over 50 years,” he added. 

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement that he was “deploying New Jersey Task Force One to assist New York with rescue efforts after extreme winter weather impacted the state this weekend, because that’s what neighbors do.”

However, temperatures “are expected to moderate across the Midwest and the East over the next few days ahead of this system,” the National Weather Service said in its latest advisory early on Tuesday, though it warned that “locally hazardous travel conditions” would persist.

CBS Buffalo affiliate WIVB-TV said conditions were extremely cold overnight Tuesday and many roads were still impassible. “Do not try to venture out around Buffalo as getting stuck can quickly become a life threatening situation with temperatures mostly in the teens overnight,” the station warned.

But forecasters said the outlook would finally start to improve. “Starting Tuesday night, we will see the snow fade out and temperatures will begin to warm up, even overnight into Wednesday. The remainder of the week is expected to remain above freezing, which will encourage melting,” WBIV reported.

“Currently, no widespread flooding is expected as creeks and streams have room in their banks despite the nearly 2-6 inches worth of water stored in the snowpack. Thankfully, this is not all expected to melt at once.”

National Guard members and other teams rescued hundreds of people from snow-covered cars and homes without electricity, but authorities said more people remained trapped.

Erie County Sheriff John Garcia called the storm “the worst” he has ever seen, with periods of zero visibility and authorities unable to respond to emergency calls.

“It was gut-wrenching when you’re getting calls where families are with their kids and they’re saying they’re freezing,” he told CNN.

Hochul, a native of Buffalo, said she was stunned by what she saw during a reconnaissance tour of the city.

“It is (like) going to a war zone, and the vehicles along the sides of the roads are shocking,” Hochul said, describing eight-foot drifts against homes as well as snowplows and rescue vehicles “buried” in snow.

The extreme weather sent temperatures to below freezing in all 48 contiguous U.S. states over the weekend, including in Texas communities along the Mexico border where some newly arriving migrants have struggled to find shelter.

At one point on Saturday, nearly 1.7 million customers were without electricity in the biting cold, according to tracker PowerOutage.us. That number has dropped substantially, with some 12,000 homes and businesses still in the dark in Maine and New York state as of 6:15 a.m. ET Tuesday.

Due to frozen electric substations, some Erie County residents weren’t expected to regain power until later Tuesday, with one substation reportedly buried under 18 feet of snow, a senior county official said.

Buffalo’s international airport was to be closed until Tuesday and a driving ban remained in effect for the Buffalo area, though Poloncarz lifted the ban for the rest of the county Tuesday, leaving an advisory warning in place.

Road ice and whiteout conditions also led to the temporary closure of some of the nation’s busiest transport routes, including part of the cross-country Interstate 70.

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